This is the end, beautiful friend. Or rather, it may just be a vision of it. Watching Pep Guardiola capering on the Anfield touchline earlier this month – skinny legs splayed, arms flailing, black quilted jacket bouncing about like an angry rubber ball – was at least confirmation of one thing. Manchester City’s manager remains an extraordinarily agile and sprightly 48-year-old footballing obsessive.
Beyond that it was hard to interpret this reaction to a third Premier League defeat as a sign of good health, stability and plans for the future falling neatly into place. Instead Guardiola seemed oddly isolated, out there operating without restraint, still in the field, a manager who may just have entered the next phase in a familiar career parabola. So much so it is tempting to ask another question. Will he actually be back at Anfield for another league game?
It would be easy to dismiss this as pure speculation, mainly because it is. Plus this kind of behavior is simply Guardiola’s way. On the wall of his office he has a quote from Marcelo Bielsa that includes the words “the joy that comes with winning lasts about five minutes and what is left is a gaping void and a loneliness that is hard to describe”. OK, so that’s winning. How about losing 3-1 to your title rivals on a wildly frustrating afternoon. Talk us through that.
By the time Guardiola appeared backstage in the media suite he had, to his credit, regained his composure. By this stage he was simply very, very angry but icily self-contained too. And yet that feeling remained. The extreme physical comedy of Guardiola’s afternoon seemed to go beyond normal modes of behaviors, to carry an echo of other times. The trouser-splitting touchline mania during the 6-1 defeat of Porto a year before Guardiola left Munich. Or the wild, capering set-to in the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid the year he left the Camp Nou triumphant but exhausted.
Guardiola is in his fourth season at City. He didn’t make it past four at Barcelona. Munich stretched to three. He has a newly built house in Manchester, loves the club and loves his group of players. There have been talks about staying in place until 2021 but with Guardiola it is important to remember he is generally in one of three phases of engagement, phases we might call Genesis, Revelation and Exodus. The first of these is the building phase, when his methods are applied, new systems put in place, bumps in the road negotiated (for a while in his first season at City Guardiola literally painted a white spot on the training pitch where he wanted Raheem Sterling to stand).
The second is the High Pep period, those golden moments when the team are functioning at their perfect pitch. The final stage is the period of departure, a process of leaving that involves much emotional energy expended on all sides.
It is tempting to conclude we are in this third stage now, that the Pep exodus has begun. And not just because of his previous patterns of behavior. In the most productive, gloriously watchable sense Guardiola tends to exhaust not just himself but those around him. By the end at Bayern club officials were openly briefing visiting journalists that enough was enough, that someone a little less demanding may be next in line.
And after a while mistakes can start to be made, as they were against Liverpool. Undoubtedly City were a bit unlucky. There is no team on earth who can lose three key members of their back five and go to Anfield with confidence. City still had 18 shots and might have had a penalty before the opening goal.
But they also might have done things differently. Why did Guardiola only use one substitute, despite chasing the game from the start? Why didn’t he use Riyad Mahrez at all? Why was there no change of shape, no tactical answer to Liverpool’s early dominance? Why had Sergio Agüero, who looked jaded, played in five games in 15 days leading up to this one? Why is Claudio Bravo, aged 36, still the back-up goalkeeper? Why have City spent £230m on full-backs in Guardiola’s time without actually securing a pair of dominant, settled full-backs, to the extent they were dominated by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, who cost a princely £7m combined? Why don’t City have a dominant, capable center-back to replace the dominant and capable Aymeric Laporte?
Critiquing any manager in this way is a rigged game. Only they get to see their players close up, to know their precise physical and mental state, to know the full details of the gameplan. These people are experts. The rest of us spectate. But part of Guardiola’s fascination is the way his mistakes often do stand out, how they can look oddly broad brush, the mistakes of a delusional Caesar bound up in ego and principle.
There is a restlessness to this too. Guardiola is like an artist in the sense he seems constantly to question the limits of his medium. Why central defenders? Why give the ball away? What is tackles? There is even a creative angst in the way he moves through club football. Create a brilliant team … and then what?
Hence perhaps the tendency to burn himself out. And City have, lest we forget, ticked off most of the elements on that to-do list. Win the league and the cups. Improve his players. Create a passing team unlike anything seen in modern English football. Influence the way the game is played in its unusually stubborn founding nation. Check to all of those.
One thing remains, of course. His obsession may not be shared by all City’s supporters but Guardiola would love above all else to win the Champions League. Liverpool will be even harder to catch in the league this time around. And this is perhaps where the season will start to lead for City, tailing towards that point in spring when those European knockout ties come rolling around, the big ticket one-off trouser-splitting occasions that have tortured Guardiola in the recent past.
He has time to regroup now and build towards that moment. Anfield was not the end, or even the beginning of the end; but it might just be a first step towards a genuine moment of dramatic crisis.
The Guardian Sport